Sat, 26 Feb 2000

Fujian bids Taiwan friends amid threat

By Robert J. Saiget

FUZHOU, China (AFP): Gazing down on the Taiwanese fishermen freely coming and going across the Taiwan Strait below, Beijing's drums of war appear strangely out of tune to lighthouse keeper Chen Qinghua.

Chen's lighthouse in Chongwu city in southeast Fujian province is just 97 nautical miles from Taiwan, a distance that feels like it is getting shorter every year for this booming region built on Taiwanese cash.

"Today many fisherman from Chongwu fish on the Taiwanese side and many Taiwan fishermen come to our port," he said, adding that police on both sides have stopped arresting them as they had done several years ago.

The elderly lighthouse keeper said cross-strait tension has decreased dramatically in recent years, before this week's publication by Beijing of a White Paper threatening an invasion if Taipei rejects reunification talks indefinitely.

"Peaceful reunification is the best, the use of force will only harm those on the Taiwan side and those on our side," he said.

Lin Jinbang, chairman of the Mazu Temple on Fujian's Meizhou Island, some 76 nautical miles from Taiwan, also wants warmer cross-strait ties in particular a direct transport link between Taiwan and the mainland as soon as possible.

"We have up to 100,000 Taiwan followers of the Mazu culture visiting our temple every year and all of them have to travel through either Hong Kong, Macau or Japan to get here," he said.

The Mazu culture is a traditional Chinese spiritual belief based on the sea goddess Mazu, whose legend tells of a young woman born on Meizhou Island who sacrificed her life while trying to save seafarers endangered by rough seas.

The Mazu belief is shared by both Fujian and Taiwan, with two- thirds of all Taiwanese worshiping Mazu.

"Of course our faith is based on peace and goodwill, so we are opposed to war," Lin said.

Taiwanese could cut the costs of their trips to Mazu by 80 percent if there was a direct transport link between Meizhou and Taiwan, he said. A boat link would only take three hours each way compared to at least three days to fly and transit a third country or territory.

Lin said thousands of Taiwanese worshipers come directly to Meizhou each year on tourist boats, without the approval of Taiwan authorities.

Taiwan has indicated that a direct link to Meizhou could become the first direct transport link between the two sides, with Yan Qing-piao, head of Taiwan's Taizhong county, the leading proponent of the link on the Taiwanese side.

Fujian provincial officials have already simplified entry and exit procedures for Taiwanese who hope to come directly to Meizhou, while the local government has built a new port capable of handling larger vessels, he said.

Lu Yonghui, of the Xiamen city government in the southern part of Fujian, said direct shipping links to Taiwan's Kaoshiung were set up in 1997 and have already received more than 620,000 containers full of Fujian exports with nearly 4,000 direct trips made.

Taiwan approved the link in 1997 with the stipulation that none of the mainland exports be actually imported into Taiwan. All the goods are re-exported to a third destination following processing or repackaging, Lu said.

"This was the first real step that the two sides have taken toward the eventual realization of direct links," he said.

Growing and increasingly solid economic links between the two sides continue to be the main reason to establish more direct links, Jiang Yafang, an official at the Taiwan Affairs Office of Fujian province told AFP.

"More than 5,800 Taiwan enterprises have been approved to do business in Fujian, investing over US$8 billion in our province," she said.

Taiwan businessmen have invested up to $40 billion in the mainland, she added.